New report warns that we must reduce pollution to fight superbugs

The “Bracing for Superbugs” report warns us that climate change and pollution are contributing to the rise of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

By 2050, antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is expected to lead to the direct additional death of ten million people. This number is on par with the number of global deaths from cancer in 2020. This is the picture that emerges from Bracing for superbugs: strengthening environmental action in the one health response to antimicrobial resistance, a report released at the Sixth Meeting of the Global Leaders Group on AMR, held in Barbados and published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“The environmental crisis of our time is also one of human rights and geopolitics – the antimicrobial resistance report published by UNEP today is yet another example of inequity, in that the AMR crisis is disproportionately affecting countries in the Global South countries,” said Barbados prime minister Mia Amor Mottley, chair of the One Health Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance in a statement. “We must remain focused on turning the tide in this crisis by raising awareness and by placing this matter of global importance on the agenda of the world’s nations.”

Superbugs – bacterial strains that can withstand known antibiotics – are already affecting the health of animals, humans, and plants © CDC/Unsplash

Superbugs and the rise of AMR

Superbugs are bacterial strains that can withstand current antibiotics, undermining our ability to respond and protect the health of animals, humans, and plants. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) – the UN agency responsible for public health – listed antimicrobial resistance as a whole among the top ten global threats to health in 2019.

According to the UN report, poor management of pollution sources from chemicals and pharmaceuticals, food and agriculture, and healthcare economic sectors, along with pollutants from poor sanitation and municipal waste, contribute to the development and spread of AMR.

Antimicrobial resistance, climate change, and possible solutions

Climate change and antimicrobial resistance are two anthropogenic phenomena. The former can influence the latter through its impact on temperatures and weather patterns. In fact, the higher temperatures associated with climate change have been linked to a rise in AMR infections, just as the extreme weather patterns connected to the climate crisis can facilitate Amr’s appearance and diffusion. 

antimicrobial resistance
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria could wreak havoc on human health and food production ©️ Freestocks/Unsplash

The report suggests a systemic approach to the issue of antimicrobial resistance that tackles environmental degradation along with AMR and highlights the importance of curtailing pollution. To reduce said pollution, the report calls for national frameworks and collaboration mechanisms, international standards that can be used in risk reduction decisions, increased efforts to better water management and improve sanitation, the establishment of innovative financial incentives and schemes, and the integration of environmental considerations into national action plans on antimicrobial resistance.

“Pollution of air, soil, and waterways undermines the human right to a clean and healthy environment. The same drivers that cause environmental degradation are worsening the antimicrobial resistance problem. The impacts of antimicrobial resistance could destroy our health and food systems,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP in a statement. “Cutting down pollution is a prerequisite for another century of progress towards zero hunger and good health.”

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